Ignoring science in schools starts with ignorance of science by the electorate

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Anyone looking for big news in the just released report on the teaching of science in California elementary schools may well file it under “dog bites man.”

In a word, elementary school science teaching is lame; it’s taught an average of a little over an hour a week, by teachers most of whom say they’re not well prepared to teach it and have few resources to work with. Some 77 percent of elementary principals say teaching science is essential, but only 44 percent say “that a student would receive high-quality science instruction in his/her school.” Is anyone surprised?

More pertinent, perhaps, is what the report, commissioned by the Center on the Future of Teaching and Learning, doesn’t discuss, and that’s the national environment of willful ignorance and proud denial of all intellectual discipline, science and economics particularly. Even the ablest teachers have a steep hill to climb.

We are witnessing a presidential campaign in which the leading candidates of one major party say that the theory of evolution hasn’t been verified and that they don’t believe there’s a link between human activity and global warming. Fewer than half of us believe in evolution; 40 percent are creationists. In some states the teaching of evolution even in high school is under constant attack.

Some 30 years ago, in “A Nation at Risk,” a presidential commission warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” If that wasn’t all hyperbole, the miseducated graduates of those mediocre schools are now our voters and political leaders. They sit on school boards, in state legislatures, even – as in Texas – in the governor’s office.

The new report, High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California, was produced by researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley and SRI International. They found that teachers and principals at many schools put part of the onus for skimpy science teaching on the pressure of time, particularly the heavy emphasis in state and federal accountability programs in reading and math.

Though that, too, is hardly news, it’s undoubtedly correct, as the same thing would be correct, perhaps even more correct, for the teaching of art or music, and maybe even history or literature. But was science ever taught well, or given much time, even before the test-based accountability systems in reading and math were instituted in the past decade or two?

Consistent with their other findings, the researchers also found, in the words of a press announcement, that “the infrastructure support and resources needed for quality science education are scarce. Just one-fifth of school districts provide science related professional development for elementary teachers, and few school districts have science specialists or coordinators.

“More than 60 percent of all school districts have no district staff dedicated to science. Two-thirds of elementary teachers cite limited funds for equipment and supplies as a challenge to teaching science. More than half of teachers say they lack access to needed facilities.” And, as ever, it would be the schools serving poor and minority students that are most severely lacking. How often do we hear this?

But with the possible exception of a small number of classrooms, was it ever different? In 1957, when the Soviet Union beat us into space with Sputnik, there was a loud outcry about the nation’s inadequacies in the teaching of math, science, and engineering. If we didn’t shape up, the Russians would win the Cold War. Similar warnings came in “Nation at Risk.” Only in 1983, it was the Germans and the Japanese who were going to beat our economic brains out.

Neither happened in the way it was predicted – not yet, anyway. But this is a different world and the dangers are far greater. We no longer dominate the world’s economy as we did after Word War II. More and more nations are overtaking us in the percentage of their young men and women who complete college. In the countries that are beating our brains out in education, creationism is not an issue and energy efficiency and the control of global warming are high priorities.

Our historic anti-intellectualism and the ideologies, beliefs, and prejudices that mask it are as powerful as ever. Presumably smart men and women running for president pretend to be morons. In California, as in many other states, as growing numbers of Latinos, Asians, and other immigrants and their children reach school and college age, we seem to become increasingly unwilling to generously fund education at every level. Is that only coincidence?

As always, in such surveys, people say teaching of science should be a high priority in the schools, and that better resources and teacher training would help. So what else is new? Everything the new survey says is correct, but it’s not new and it’s only a fraction of the story.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOPed advisory board.


Filed under: Commentary, STEM


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10 Responses to “Ignoring science in schools starts with ignorance of science by the electorate”

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  1. SM on Mar 23, 2012 at 4:51 am03/23/2012 4:51 am

    • 000

    “We are witnessing a presidential campaign in which the leading candidates of one major party say that the theory of evolution hasn’t been verified and that they don’t believe there’s a link between human activity and global warming. Fewer than half of us believe in evolution; 40 percent are creationists. In some states the teaching of evolution even in high school is under constant attack.” Peter Shragg
    I certainly do not want any kids taught by people like Peter Shragg. Theories ARE NEVER VERIFIED! There is no Department of Theory Verification! All theories are ALWAYS subject to new information which would contradict them and over-throw them for a new, improved theory.
    As far as Man Made Global Warming goes – the science is bunk. HIDE THE DECLINE PETER, HIDE THE DECLINE!

  2. Ze'ev Wurman on Oct 26, 2011 at 8:39 pm10/26/2011 8:39 pm

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    I am with CapitolReader regarding Peter Shrags’ political biases taking over his logic. Putting together in the same sentence belief in the “theory of evolution” and belief in a “link between human activity and global warming” either shows enormous scientific ignorance, or an interest to make political hay come hell or high water.  And I don’t think Peter is a scientific ignoramus.
    But I agree with Peter that we have a problem with science education in America. Unfortunately, it is not only the lay public that is frequently uninformed or ill advised about science education. Just recently the NRC — an august body of scientists not known to be made up of Republicans — published its new science framework.  Yet that framework deprecates mathematics, cites anti-scientific post-modernist sources and promotes pedagogy not based on science , and exhibits generally low expectations of our students. To add insult to injury, governor Brown already signed a bill committing California to base our future science standards — sight unseen — on that wrong-headed framework.
    No Peter. Bad educational approaches are not limited to one party.

  3. el on Oct 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm10/26/2011 12:42 pm

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    I guarantee you that charter schools are not getting parents who don’t care enough to apply to a different school or who don’t care enough to drive their kids to a different school. Educating kids whose parents value school – regardless of other socioeconomic or demographic figures – of course is going to be more successful and require less extra support than educating kids who don’t care and whose parents don’t care.
    We have to stop pretending that charter schools are only valuable if they serve the same kids. It’s not so. I am certain that charters succeed with some kids who would not succeed in their local school, either because of their special interest matching the child’s, or because all the other kids around them are excited about school too. But similarly, we have to stop pretending that charter school methods are a magic bullet that would work for every child if only every child was enrolled in one, or that cutting funding for neighborhood public schools is a serious and realistic way to improve achievement.
    I doubt charters like Aspire are educating severely disabled kids. The education there would not be appropriate for kids who are severely autistic or have other extremely expensive issues. A parent who wanted the most appropriate education for that child would not choose them, because they’re not going to have those kinds of programs.
    And finally, public schools have some expense obligations that charters do not. For example, in my county, our local charter schools are not required to provide any bus service, and do not. Our public schools all have bus service. This isn’t a cost that evaporates from charter school students – rather, it’s just accounted to the parents, who pay more in total for that transportation than a local school district pays to run buses. But no one tracks it or accounts it to the cost of educating those kids.

  4. CapitolReader on Oct 26, 2011 at 11:59 am10/26/2011 11:59 am

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    @el In fact, California charters get 36% percent fewer dollars in public funding.  When you take into account all other funds, the gap is still 9%. 

    Here’s a study that underscores these numbers: http://bellwethereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Bellwether_Location-Location-Location.pdf

    A great deal of charters give priority to neighborhood students.  To deny that would demonstrate you arent looking at the situation objectively.

    By they way, I did indicate that some traditional schools are serving challenging populations and delivering positive results (typically getting less funding because they are doing well).  The ultimate point is that there is no correlation between spending and student performance. 

  5. el on Oct 26, 2011 at 11:02 am10/26/2011 11:02 am

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    Capitol Reader, I dispute that they are the same populations and I also dispute that on the whole they are doing it for less.
    Money raised from parents and outside donations is not counted in their per pupil spending. Kids whose parents don’t care and kids who are severely disabled are not attending those schools.
    I am glad kids are successful in those programs, and as long as they are successful with the kids they have – more power to them. But the assumption that if every child was in that program that they could be educated for the same low cost with the same results is wrong.

  6. CapitolReader on Oct 26, 2011 at 9:13 am10/26/2011 9:13 am

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    @el I appreciate your point but I’m still not convinced only because there are so many examples of schools – especially charters (certainly not all) – teaching algebra and everything else demanded of them, not just for the average per pupil amount but for far less.  For example LA Unified spends more than the national average per pupil but has some unfortunate results. Charters like Aspire and even some traditional schools are doing a great job with the same populations but with fewer resources. 

    The more we obsess over the number of dollars that go into the system and ignore how the money is spent, the more of a disservice we do to kids.

  7. el on Oct 25, 2011 at 5:00 pm10/25/2011 5:00 pm

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    Funding has increased, but the mission has increased too.
    Until the mid 1970’s, millions of kids were not educated at all. Now, all children have the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of disability or other status.
    We also expect more – we expect all California 8th graders to take algebra, for example. When I was a student, only the most elite kids took algebra by then. 30 kids out of a class of 500. Many kids in that system never took algebra at all. No one cared if kids were left behind, dropped out, or stopped with a high school diploma.
    And, schools relied on bright young women who had the choice between teaching and nursing and secretarial work for their careers.

  8. CapitolReader on Oct 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm10/25/2011 12:19 pm

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    Peter – Forgive me for being so blunt, but you could you please stop insulting our intelligence?  Blaming “the leading candidates of one major party” (is Republican a bad word now?) for the failures of one of the bluest states in the nation is intellectually lazy and a straw man if there ever was one.  Seriously, the CA legislature has been governed by Democrats for 4o years and youre blaming Rick Perry?  Talk about letting ideology and politics get in the way of the truth!
    And other than those anti-intellectual Republicans running for office, what else is wrong?  It’s – SHOCKER! – a lack of funding!  Wow! We’ve never heard that before! 
    Except the country now spends $600 a year billion on public education.  Funding has more than doubled in the past thirty years (adjusted for inflation) – it’s not the money. 

  9. el on Oct 25, 2011 at 9:12 am10/25/2011 9:12 am

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    Science has never been taught well in elementary schools. I believe that the sum total of the science I had in grades K-6 was:
    1. wading pool of crawfish
    2. mealworms who crawled (or didn’t) towards different colored paper
    3. A flashlight made out of a battery, lightbulb, and tinfoil
    And I was even in what is now called the GATE program.
    It turned out OK for me – I have a STEM degree – but science is so much fun and has so many opportunities for significant learning and curiosity that it is a shame we don’t leverage it better in elementary grades.
    My daughter has had far more exposure to science in school than I ever did. They made simple electrical circuits that were programmed to know the answers to the 12 times tables. They grew and observed and drew plant development in kindergarten. They made powerpoint presentations about each planet in the solar system. My daughter knows about geology and electromagnets. They went on a week long outdoor science school trip. And this school serves a population of lower financial means than my school did.
    Could it be more and better? Oh yes. Undoubtedly. But the situation we see now is not a regression, but a substantial improvement over the 1970s and 1980s.
    There are a lot of teachers finding ways to slide this in to their day. If you want to be both pleased and despondent, go through the science projects at donorschoose.org and see the 1,500+ requests for California schools alone… The requests any given week range from for money for markers and butcher paper so they can participate in the high school science fair to projects like dissecting a shark in an inner city school.

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